Friday, 27 September 2013

Part Two - Compasses Smuggled into Camps via MI9 & MIS - X

The Allies were able to assist escape work in the POW camps of occupied Europe by sending in a range of concealed aids. British POWs were able to communicate with MI9 in London via coded letters and later the Americans operated the same way via MIS–X in New York and Fort Hunt near Washington. Compasses were a key escape item which the two organisations attempted to smuggle into camps. 
MI9 initially led the way in this field as they had been in the war for over three years by the time MIS –X was formed in October 1942. After some early problems with codes, and subsequent help from MI9, the Americans were able to build up their own operations quickly, as they did with producing and shipping out concealed escape aids to camps.  
Christopher Clayton Hutton
Clayton Hutton had been proactive for MI9 (see earlier post). He found a firm of instrument makers, Blunts in the Old Kent Rd London run by 2 elderly brothers. From 1000 feet of steel strip they made 5000 magnetised bars nearly 1inch long. This formed the basis from which various designs of compass were made.
Tiny brass cylinders a quarter of an inch across with a luminous compass needle balanced within them could be hidden in a pipe or fountain pen, or in the back of a service button or cap badge. Larger ones could be painted over and become the bases of collar studs. These were commonly worn by men so could filter their way into a camp without suspicion. The escaper could scrape the paint off with a finger nail when he needed to use the compass.

Another method was to use a lead pencil with a metal clip for carrying in the breast pocket. The clip could be made of steel, then magnetised before a small dent was punched beneath it at the point of balance so it would swing on its own pencil tip.

Razor blades were also magnetised, with the north end of the magnet at the same end as the start of the maker’s name printed on the blade. It would function well when suspended from a piece of cotton or thread.
It was possible for certain escape aids to be requested via a normal chatty letter home to one of the mythical ‘relatives/friends’  (MI9/MIS –X aliases) adopted by the POW coded letter writer (see previous post). The aids would then arrive at the camp concealed inside specific items which were part of a general consignment of tinned food, coffee and everyday articles  such as soap, razor blades etc. They came from one of the fictitious prisoner of war welfare organisations created by MI9 or MIS – X. (These bodies were totally separate from the International Red Cross parcels which were never compromised because of the prisoner’s total reliance upon them due to meagre German rations.) 
By the time the loaded parcels arrived, a typical return letter from the ‘relative/friend’ to the prisoner involved in the code writing would already have been received in camp. The correspondence would indicate once decoding had taken place, which package(s) contained the hidden contraband. BBC radio broadcasts were also occasionally used to conceal similar coded messages about items (usually The Radio Padre – see previous post).
The CIO would be briefed and a plan adopted to minimise the risk of any detection by German guards or censor (in some camp organisations this was done via the code writer briefing the Senior Officer, who in turn briefed ‘X’.) A tried and tested system with subtle diversionary tactics was often already in operation.

An early American example of this process in action occurred at Oflag 64 (American ground force officer’s camp), but what happened was typical of other Allied camps in occupied Europe at the time.

Oflag 64  - Robert Keith

The American parcels officer in Oflag 64 was always on hand when a consignment of mail and packages arrived for POWs. The reason given had been to prevent German pilfering. The captors were happy to accommodate this arrangement as it removed the opportunity for such allegations to be made.
The parcels officer was able to have a regular volunteer crew of trusted POWs to assist the Germans in unloading any railway wagons with POW mail and parcels at the nearby railway station. For the German guards, it was an opportunity away from the camp to take a rest and observe someone else doing the work (they were probably smoking American cigarettes handed over by one of the volunteer party).
Two POWs would unload the wagon and stack boxes and packages into the back of a lorry, while a third man with a clipboard (usually the parcels officer) appeared to be keeping a record of all deliveries. The third man was in reality looking out for specific coloured labels on the consignment. Unknown to him, these would be shipments from one or more of the fictitious POW welfare organisations run by MIS – X, e.g. ‘Servicemen’s Relief.’ He would also be keeping an eye out for packages or boxes addressed to certain named individuals. These were often the code writing POWs, or a link man involved in the subterfuge. It is important to note that although a number of POWs were involved in the operation, they would be unaware of the contents of any of the packages apart from details indicated on the routine labelling, and they had no idea that the organisations which supplied the prisoner’s parcels were false.
Each package was taken from the lorry and carried to the Camp Vorlager (receiving area) and placed at the end of a long table. The censor would be waiting close to the parcels officer at the opposite end.
In this example, requests had been made by the code writers for escape items and a radio part. A coded reply had arrived back by letter advising that packages with concealed items were en route. The parcels officer had already been solely briefed ly on what to look out for and he had alerted his team. The men had been looking for these packages for a number of weeks and they stood out from the ordinary Red Cross boxes which were smaller, wooden and strapped with metal bindings. The ‘Servicemen’s Relief’ packages were wrapped in brown paper and tied with hemp twine.
Typical Contents of Red Cross Parcel
As the parcels officer was there only to ensure correct handling and prevent theft, he could not touch the packages. The guards took them off the table in groups of five to line up in front of the censor. The metal bindings around the Red Cross boxes were retained by the Germans for obvious reasons, and the censor opened each box or package to inspect the contents individually. Anything soft such as soap or shoe polish had a needle inserted to check for concealed items. Once the censor was happy, he would allow a POW to stack the box or package with other cleared ones.     
When the delivery had been dealt with, the prisoner party was allowed to take it into camp. The team had been briefed to look out for and ‘fast track’ specific packages, so once they had been spotted at the railhead, they were suitably stacked on the lorry to enable suitable placement in the inspection order at the Vorlager. The ‘loaded’ packages were also conveniently the next ones in the pile to be taken out as the parcels officer conveniently reached his turn in assisting the other prisoners.
Once the recipients had received their delivery from the parcels officer, lookouts were posted to watch for any Germans or POWs. In a typical camp organisation, only the code writers and probably ‘X’ and the CIO would be present. In this example, the 2 code writers, Camp CO, ‘Big X’ and an officer k/a ‘Big S’ for security were in the hut. The coded message from MIS – ‘X’ had added ‘break all wooden objects’.
The contents of the parcels included tinned and dried food. Also in this consignment were a normal looking shoe brush and shaving brush. These were the only wooden items and appeared routine and not tampered with. The men decided to follow their instructions and began to attack the shaving brush. Five small compasses and a wad of German Reichmark bills fell out as it broke. The hollowed out handle of the brush also contained five tissue maps in the bottom. Everything had been packed together to stop it rattling around inside. After the handle had been hollowed out by MIS – X and the items inserted, it had been glued back to the rest of the assembly, sanded and then varnished until any signs of interference were removed. The radio ‘part’ inside the shoe brush was a requested diagram for a radio transmitter.  
The Escape Factory – Lloyd Shoemaker (Recommended read)
MI9 Escape and Evasion 1939-1945 - M.R.D. Foot & J. M. Langley (Recommended read on MI9)

National Archives

Personal notes
©Keith Morley
THIS BLOG claims no credit for any images posted on this site unless otherwise noted. Images on this blog are copyright to its respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and do not wish for it appear on this site, please message me with a link to said image and it will be promptly removed.




  1. More interesting background about the compasses used here from Keith.
    Still engaging. There were several compasses utilised in the War.
    1. A small compass (in one piece) that was concealed in the hollowed-out heel of a flying boot.
    2. One that formed the bottom half of a standard RAF Brass Button for a no. 1 uniform.
    This button had a screw top with a reverse thread (i.e. unscrewed by turning clockwise.
    3. A compass consisting of 2 trouser fly buttons: the lower one had a pivot and the upper one was magnetised.
    4. A button made of bakelite with a magnetic element in it.
    5. A compass concealed in the belt buckle.
    6. A razor blade type used by sailors of the Royal Navy.
    7. The magnetised tags of the flying boots' laces.
    The R.A.F. No. 1 (Home Dress) uniform was for parades and smart occasions; it comprised a belted jacket with brass buttons for breast and patch pockets, and a brass buckle for the belt. Strangely, this was used by both bomber and fighter air crews in the early part of the war. It was later replaced by battledress (No. 2 dress) that had a waisted jacket that buttoned on to the back of the trousers, and had black plastic buttons. The escape compass for battledress was hidden in 2 buttons (i.e. it had no crystal); one for the base and pivot, and the other had the needle. Airmen and aircrew serving in hot climates had uniforms with black buttons and belts. No. 5 Dress was the Mess Kit.
    There was no end to the inventiveness of the concealments in WW2 for items of use to help escape and evasion.

    “Because your own strength is unequal to the task, do not assume that it is beyond the powers of man; but if anything is within the powers and province of man, believe that it is within your own compass also.”
    Marcus Aurelius.

    1. Thanks Helen. The post and your reply is just a flavour of what was out there. The ingenuity and thinking of MI9 and MIS - X never ceases to amaze me. Love your quotes.